Thursday, July 19, 2012

Thoughts from a "Shill for Monsanto"

As an academic research scientist active at the public interface, I enjoy communicating about complex science topics. With regard to trasngenic (GMO) crops, if you read my blogs, comments left online, or listen to audiences in public discussions, you'll see that they ultimately reach a common point.

Someone always indicates that Monsanto is my employer. Like clockwork.

I'm still waiting for the check. Actually, I never worked for them, consulted for them, or received a dime from them. As a university scientist my funding is all public record, so this may be verified.

 Here is why the throw-away "you work for Monsanto" or "shill for Monsanto" comment harms the anti-GMO movement: 

1. It immediately says that you are willing to make up information in the absence of evidence.

2. It says that you are finished with the conversation, that nothing I communicate is valid in your opinion.

3. It shows that you are willing to try to influence other like-minded people with disinformation.

4. It shows disdain for the peer-review process and scientific method.  
5. (least importantly) It disrespects a scientist's real position as a public liaison, volunteering time to explain science. We're used to that from dealing with climate change deniers and Creationists, no big deal.

If I wanted to work for Big Ag I could easily find a position there. I'd triple my salary, work about the same hours, and never write a grant proposal again. In the days of state and federal budget issues with science, it is an increasingly attractive alternative.

But my passion is exploration in science, working with students, postdocs, visiting scientists, farmers and the industry. I want to make tools and techniques that come from the public sector, not that are locked in a proprietary corporate structure. Such endeavors would be severely limited with a position in a big ag company.

In the late 1980's I interned with Cargill Hybrid Seeds and really disliked the pace of corporate science. Even with a job offer and big bucks for the time, I elected to stay in academic science (and nine years of graduate education!).

So don't tell me who I work for. I'm really proud to work for YOU, and such assertions just destroy the communication and learning process, both ways.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The “Arctic Grape” Sneaks Through Public Approval

We are currently witnessing the USDA public commentary period on the Arctic Apple, a transgenic apple that does not exhibit browning upon injury or cutting.  The anti-browning trait was installed by scientists at Okanagan Specialty Fruits. A copy of the apple gene for polyphenol oxidase (PPO) was overexpressed, which triggers a plant response to silence the over-expressed gene.  The same process also suppresses the apple’s endogenous PPO genes.

Trees have been growing for ten years and are poised for widespread adoption.  But as expected, the critics have now emerged against this non-browning apple.  They say that the apples are untested in humans, that the pollen will contaminate other plants.  They say that it is unnatural and will need more pesticide. 

But the same criticisms were strangely silent against what was essentially the Arctic Grape.  A major genetic alteration affected the PPO gene of the ‘Sultana’ grape, a genetic change that was unknown, uncharacterized and uninvestigated. All the scientists knew is that they didn't brown. The resulting grape exhibited the same anti-browning properties as the current Arctic Apple, and gained rapid favor for the production of light-colored raisins and low-oxidation wines.  Unlabeled and untested, this genetic aberration spread quickly throughout the dried-grape industry, as consumers and farmers realized great gains from the sweet, white and golden raisins.  

Worse, it turns out that scientists later deciphered the molecular basis for the disorder. The normal PPO protein was unprocessed, a new protein created!  Just like the anti-GMO folks warn us about all the time, the new protein, untested for allergenicity and long-term feeding consequences, accumulated in the modified Franken-fruit background.  This new freakish protein was the unnatural reason that the grapes did not brown, and the raisins remained white or golden.

The Punchline.  You’ve likely eaten them.  You might have even bought them at an organic market.  You never cared.

In fact, the PPO mutant occurred spontaneously in 1962 in a grape line called “Sultana”.  A mutation in the grapevine changed a gene so that the PPO oxidase protein (the one suppressed in Arctic Apple) could not be processed and made functional.  The fruits were largely white and did not show PPO activity. 

Why?  The active enzyme is about 40 kilodaltons in size, but in ‘Bruce’s Sport’, the ppo mutant, the protein was not processed.  The modified protein was not a functional PPO.  A new protein was formed and caused the lack of browning. How did this mutant atrocity ever escape regulation?  Surely Monsanto ram-rodded this through the FDA and USDA!

Not so much.

In fact, not at all. 

The PPO mutant was found in 1962.  Nobody cared about why the grapes didn’t brown, they just knew was a great trait.  In 1992 scientists finally figured out that the non-browning trait was caused by the fact that a new protein was formed in the plant, an unprocessed form of PPO that could not complete the browning process.

The year 1962.  The year 1992.  Changes in genes, new proteins formed.  All untested, unlabeled, and accepted as perfectly fine; happy golden raisins to go with your granola.  De-lish.

Turn ahead to 2012.  The same gene is suppressed in apples with great precision.  A group of people object to the process. They worry about allergies, cross-pollination and GMO Franken-dangers.


Why is this process completely acceptable when unknown, unpredictable and untested back in the 1960's? 

Why is the process decried when it is understood, documented and tested now?

These two questions frame an intellectual inconsistency of the anti-GMO movement that I cannot understand, and show that it is not the product, but the process that activists find objectionable.


Rathjen and Robinson (1992)  Aberrant Processing of Polyphenol Oxidase in a Variegated Grapevine Mutant Plant Physiol. 99(4): 1619–1625.

Dry and Robinson (1994) Molecular cloning and characterisation of grape berry polyphenol oxidase Plant Molec. Biol. 26: 495-502


Antcliff (1962)  Bruce’s Sport:  A Mutant of the Sultana.